I’ve heard it all over the magazine industry. As an ad revenue generator, digital magazines are a flop. “We tried doing a digital magazine,” one publisher told me, “but couldn’t sell any additional ad space. The clickthroughs were abysmal and after a few issues we stopped doing it.”

But digital magazines are a distribution success story. B-to-B publishers have deployed digital editions successfully to boost their BPA circulation cheaply, and consumer magazines are selling digital edition subscriptions. But these editions typically include only the ads sold into the print issues.

Many media buyers do not understand the value of digital magazines as an advertising medium. I believe this is because the basic research to measure the impact digital magazines have as a unique advertising medium has not been done.

Every advertising media has a trade advocacy group that does ongoing research to prove its value. For magazines, it’s the Magazine Publishers of America; for cable television, it’s the Cable Advertising Bureau; for billboards, it’s the Outdoor Advertising Association of America; for Web advertising. it’s the Interactive Advertising Bureau, etc.

No one advocates for digital magazines in this way, and yet, there are three big questions that need answering:

1. Do readers skip the ads?

The good news is that digital magazines are very interactive. The bad news is that digital magazines are very interactive. The questions is, how many readers go to the table of contents and jump to just the articles they want to read, skipping all the ads in between? Do some demographic groups skip more? What are the content strategies that editors can use to hold a readers interest though the entire issue? Do digital magazines need to be shorter or more focused than print magazines so readers don’t skip? Until the "skip factor" question is answered, media buyers will stay away.

2. Is the format a problem?

What if you took all of the articles in a digital magazine and reformatted them into a typical e-mail newsletter, initially just showing article headlines and the first few sentences to click on and read the whole article? This would be quicker and avoid the wait time while images download. What’s missing? The graphical formatting. In a very basic way, when you sell advertising into a digital edition you are selling the value of graphical and text formatting. How important it is this to readers? Does it get them more involved in content? Do they read articles—and ads—at a higher level or involvement? If they could get the same content in a quick e-mail newsletter would they prefer it? Again, this kind of understanding is needed to help digital magazine publishers design for maximum impact, and for media buyers to understand "what’s in it for me."       
3. Do digital ads have impact?

How does an ad in a digital magazine actually impact a reader’s mind, say, versus a banner ad, a print ad or a TV ad? There are expectations and a basic understanding of how these other advertising media work. The basic research has been done and the advocacy association for each can tell you how advertising with their media works as a branding tool, lead generation tool or a new product introduction tool.

Please, no more surveys documenting the rapid growth of digital magazines and how happy the readers are with them. This measures only the success of digital magazines as a distribution medium. If this is all we get, media buyers will continue to be unimpressed.

I strongly believe digital magazines have a life as an ad-supported medium. I predict that once the basic research is done there will be a flurry of new digital magazines launched, designed as original digital editions. Ad-supported digital magazines will look and feel very different than their print originated counterparts. There will an understanding as to which kind of content will thrive as a digital magazine vs. content better-delivered as a simple e-newsletter. There will be a renaissance in editorial content and graphical design development specific for ad supported digital magazines.

I challenge the digital magazine industry to from an association and do the research. I’d love to help do it.